The Body Athletic

April 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

My life has been focused a lot on athletics recently. And I’m not talking about my extracurricular activities outside of school, I’m talking about leisure and school. While most of my school work this year has focused on Obama’s presidency and the bin Laden targeted killing, I decided to take a major detour for one of my classes and analyze the three Body Issues of ESPN The Magazine (ESPNTM). I decided that with the Boston Marathon tomorrow, why not devote a post to the athletic body?

If you’re not familiar with these magazines, in 2009, ESPNTM decided to showcase top athletes completely nude every year in a special issue called the Body Issue, claiming “we sing the body athletic.” Now, before anyone gets too uncomfortable, rest assured that what should be private is, well, kept private, whether it is through a strategic positioning of hands, legs, arms, equipment or shadows. Let’s just say it’s been fun having to go to the public library and ask for three specific issues of the magazine and then tote them around while I scan them and take pictures of them. :) It’s actually part of a larger project I’m working on with a classmate. She’s a visual communication doctoral student with an undergraduate degree in art history, and the two of us became intrigued by these issues and the larger messages they are communicating and decided to team up and write a paper for a visual communication conference in June. In the meantime, we’re each writing our own papers for our classes and then will combine our efforts into one paper for the conference. So, needless to say, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently looking at very muscular naked athletic bodies.

On Friday, I spent most of my afternoon analyzing and writing about the photographs. That night, I asked one of my friends if she and her husband would mind if I tagged along with them for dinner, since Steve was out of town. She told me they were headed to a new museum in SLC, The Leonardo, for one of their free quarterly “after hours” presentations. The topic? Exploring the limits of the human body with an emphasis on Olympic Athletes. Why not continue to interrogate these amazing bodies and explore their limits? It was a very interesting talk, with Olympic Gold Medalist Bill Demong and Dr. Troy Flanagan, High Performance Director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. They explained everything that goes into the small details at the elite performance level, such as the ways in which jump suits are designed down to the very part of the bolt of fabric they choose to use. It was quite intriguing, as they countered the claims that we’ve almost reached our limits in how fast we can run, how far we can jump, and how high we can fly. It was the perfect discussion the weekend before the Boston marathon and a week before my first half marathon at elevation.

During this time, I have also read America by Jean Baudrillard for my theories of pop culture class. While we only had to read a few chapters, I was so drawn in by his sarcastic pessimism, that I just kept on reading. One of my favorite sections of his book is when he discusses his observations of the New York Marathon. Describing it as “the end-of-the-world show,” he then asks, “Can we speak of suffering freely entered into as we might speak of a state of servitude freely entered into?” (p. 20). This is a fair observation, as there are definitely parts of athletic training that are voluntary suffering for an ultimate goal. For example, Bill Demong explained that he has a high tolerance for pain, and often thinks, “It already hurts, so I might as well keep going.” However I think Baudrillard’s best observation is as follows: “The marathon is a form of demonstrative suicide, suicide as advertising: it is running to show you are capable of getting every last drop of energy out of yourself, to prove it…to prove what? That you are capable of finishing” (p. 21). While he clearly looks down on the attitude of competing just to finish, for most of us, this is true. At least it was for me last year when I ran my first marathon. My main goal was to finish. But with the elite athletes like the ones I’ve been studying in their birthday suits, as well as Bill Demong, there are bigger goals than that. And, no matter how much technology improves, it still comes down to hard work, which can be painful.

Demonstrative suicide? It’s a bit of a hyperbole. But whatever you want to call it, I’ll keep doing it, because it’s what keeps me sane when I’m stressed out with school or life in general. Also, I think it’s amazing to watch elite athletes in action, and I’m very excited for the Olympics this summer. However, I must say I’m glad they’ll be wearing uniforms, and not competing in the nude like they did in the ancient Olympics. I’m ready to spend some time looking at fully clothed athletes.

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